The Moor's Last Sigh | Critical Essay by Nina Barnton

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of The Moor's Last Sigh.
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Critical Essay by Nina Barnton

SOURCE: "Sentenced to Death but Recalled to Life," in The New York Times, January 17, 1996, pp. C1-2.

In the following essay, based on an interview with the author, Barnton describes Rushdie's life since the fatwa.

London, Jan. 11—Having lunch with Salman Rushdie means being prepared for the unexpected. First, there's the caller from Scotland Yard who arranges the meeting but refuses to mention the author by name, simply instructing you to bring a copy of The New York Times to a rendezvous in the lobby of a London hotel.

Next, there's the bodyguard who checks your identification and walks you over to a second hotel and up a back staircase, where a secret knock admits you to a suite guarded by three plainclothes policemen. Finally, there is the meeting with the author. Together, the author, the bodyguard and the reporter descend for the triumphant entry into the hotel dining room at its busiest hour.

But there is a snag. The author is not wearing a necktie. And he cannot be admitted without one.

"It's been a long time since anything like this has happened to me." Mr. Rushdie says, as he, the bodyguard and the reporter all obediently trail along behind the headwaiter to the cloakroom for a spare tie. Mr. Rushdie indeed seems to relish this touch of quotidian real-life hassle.

"The sound bite on me is that I am incredibly vain, I'm very arrogant, I'm fantastically unpleasant as a person, I'm greedy, disloyal to my friends, et cetera," he says, ticking off the insults methodically. "I just have to face the fact that there is a piece of England that will never accept people like me. They don't like the fact that I am, as they would put it, 'foreign'—the fact that I've been a British citizen for 31 years doesn't stop me from being foreign."

With the publication of his new book, The Moor's Last Sigh, Mr. Rushdie, 48, has taken a giant step toward normalizing his life. He has agreed to a series of arranged, even advertised appearances.

[Mr. Rushdie is in New York to publicize his novel. On Monday night, Tina Brown, editor of the New Yorker, took over Barocco, a TriBeCa restaurant, for about 80 of the city's literati to pay homage to the Indian-born writer. On Tuesday, he lunched with editors at Newsweek, appeared on "Donahue" and was scheduled to give an evening reading at the New York Public Library for nearly 400 invited guests. Although he is accompanied everywhere by bodyguards, he has come a long way from a visit to New York five years ago, when he was escorted everywhere by an 11-car motorcade and never announced where he would appear.]

"It's like a way of saying, I'm back," he says, sipping red wine, "of showing in a public way that no one is locking me up anymore."

Dressed elegantly in a chestnut brown cashmere jacket, white shirt and light brown knit vest (even the hotel tie matches), Mr. Rushdie looks relaxed and prosperous, very much the successful novelist. His face, familiar from dozens of photographs, is the same—the dark beard flecked even more now with gray, the receded hairline, the slightly dropping eyelids visible through round wire-frame glasses that give him a secretive, hooded look. His reputed arrogance is not in evidence. He has been given a rough ride by British journalists, who bristle over everything from what they viewed as an ungracious acceptance speech when he won the Booker Prize for Midnight's Children in 1981 to insufficient gratitude to Britain for providing expensive round-the-clock police protection—though he bears part of the cost himself.

Although annoyed, he seems mellowed—he jokes warmly, laughs easily, speaks openly about his life. He has the air of a man beginning to look back on a traumatic experience from a safe distance.

Seven years ago, after he was sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—and after a price of millions of dollars was put on his head—for what was called blasphemy of Islam in The Satanic Verses, Mr. Rushdie hid from public view entirely, living in a series of safe houses and rarely surfacing even to visit family or close friends. He describes that time as tense and isolated. "I felt mostly bewilderment," he says. "It was as if the shape of the world got broken."

But in retrospect, the experience was not without value. "One always wonders if there is anything worth risking your life for, anything worth fighting for," he says, reflectively.

Through the pain of his disorientation and isolation, he discovered that there was: "It was the art of the novel, the voice that nobody owns, speaking in this indirect way," he says. About four years after he went into hiding, although still heavily protected, he began making surprise appearances at literary meetings, select parties and even, from time to time, public restaurants. His decision now to step even further out of the shadows is based more on his own instincts about his safety and his desire to reclaim his life than on a significant change in the nature of the threat.

Although there has been some progress lately—Iranian Government officials have been saying for months that they no longer propose to honor the fatwa (the religious edict calling for his death)—they are still not willing to sign documents renouncing it. The British Government remains convinced Mr. Rushdie is in danger, as is evident by the still elaborate security measures to protect him.

"I take the view—and I have spent some years persuading the security forces of this—that for me to be hidden away sends the wrong message," Mr. Rushdie says over a lunch of creamed John Dory and boiled potatoes. "It sends the message that these kinds of threats work, and it seems to me that the lesson you learn in the school playground is that what you do with bullies is not be bullied."

A few tables away, on a raised tier that allows a panoramic view of the restaurant, two security guards watch carefully.

To the relief of his fans, Mr. Rushdie's new book, written during his enforced isolation, shows no sign of succumbing to bullying. In fact, his satiric portrayal of a fascist Hindu politician was so close to the real-life Hindu nationalist leader Bal Thackery that the Indian Government bowed to internal pressures and banned further imports of the novel.

Asked if he had considered self-censorship to avoid the controversy, Mr. Rushdie answers: "It never occurred to me. I knew Bal Thackery wouldn't like it. The hell with him, frankly. You have to follow your imagination. Otherwise, don't write." Besides, the author points out, the character Ramon Fielding isn't based only on Mr. Thackery. "One of the models for that character is Zhirinovsky," he says, referring to Vladimir N. Zhirinovsky, the right-wing Russian politician.

The Moor's Last Sigh, which was published here in September to critical acclaim, has won the prestigious Whitbread Award and is thought by many to be Mr. Rushdie's best work. Set in India, it tells of an eccentric family that controls a trading empire built on the export of pepper and spices.

It centers on the story's narrator, Moraes Zagoiby, the Moor of the title, who is of Portugese-Indian-Jewish-Christian descent and whose Jewish and Moorish ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492. Born after only four and a half months gestation, Moraes suffers from an odd infirmity—he ages twice as fast as everyone else.

Cast out by his famous artist mother, who seems to embody India itself, pursued by enemies, facing and conquering fear, forced to live at double time so as to pack life's experiences into his reduced time span, the character cannot help suggesting the writer himself.

"With fear, it's all or nothing," Mr. Rushdie writes. "Either, like any bullying tyrant it rules your life with a stupid blinding omnipotence, or else you overthrow it, and its power vanishes in a puff of smoke."

Mr. Rushdie agrees that the book wouldn't have had exactly the same shape if the fatwa hadn't happened, but stresses that the novel's themes go beyond his own problems.

"Otherwise," he says, "it would just be solipsistic and only about me, and therefore not of interest to anyone else." He says he met some artists from Sarajevo who told him that they lived with fear by finally deciding to put it aside.

"You basically take the decision that you're either going to function or to be afraid," he says. "You can't do both."

He also points out that the high-speed narration, the acceleration of time inherent in the Moor's condition, while a useful parallel for his own situation, has a wider meaning.

"During this time, three of my best friends among writers have died at around the age of 50," he says, "Raymond Carver, Angela Carter and Bruce Chatwin—writers at the peak of their powers with 20 to 30 years of writing life ahead of them, and you know, nobody shot them. It was illness—lung cancer in two cases, AIDS in the third, and bang they were dead. It made me think you don't have to have a fatwa. There just may not be as much time as we think."

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This section contains 1,511 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Nina Barnton